The Majesty of Bach
AS SUPERB as J.S. Bach’s music is on radio and CD recordings, it is far more majestic when heard live, especially in the right setting.
No doubt, most of the 500 or so people in attendance Sunday afternoon at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church would agree after hearing the Bach Festival Charleston Chamber Orchestra and Festival Kirk Choir in a spectacular finale to this year’s festival.
From the opening bars of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major (BWV 1068), it was apparent that we were in for exceptional listening. Timpani, trumpets, and horns rose brightly above the 19-piece orchestra in what proved to be a perfect proportion of sound. Throughout the afternoon, the other instruments remained clearly audible (including the harpsichord, with its sound board removed), but, because they were not 40-strong, they allowed the soloists to really shine—as opposed to being drowned out against the backdrop of a large orchestra.
The familiar suite that includes its signature movement, “Air” (on a G string), was played at a nice pace under the hand of conductor and festival director, Dr. JeYoon Choi. Sometimes you hear this work—especially the “Air”—played more slowly, sometimes too slowly. In this case, Dr. Choi and orchestra kept it crisp and articulate.
The chorus joined in for the second piece, Cantata No. 23, Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (Thou Very God and David’s Son), BWV 23 which was beautifully accentuated by guest soloists Margaret Cook, soprano; Jennifer Luiken, alto; DeWayne Trainer, tenor; and Art Bumgardner, bass. And conductor Ricard Bordas was right: as he had pointed out in his pre-performance interview, following the translated text made all the difference while listening to this profound piece.
Based partly on Luke 18:30–43, this cantata brings to life the moments when the blind man begs Christ to heal him. It is one thing to hear this divine music and even know the context, but it is quite another to read the words as they are sung:
Have mercy on me!
And let your miraculous hand,
that has turned aside so much evil,
act for me likewise as help and consolation.
Ah! Do not pass by,
you, the salvation of all mankind…
Third on the program was the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major (BWV 1049) featuring Frances Hsieh on violin along with Jessica Hull-Dambaugh and Tacy Edward on flutes. Again, because of the chamber-sized orchestra, the clarity and charming conversation between these three soloists could not have sounded better.
Frances then paired with Yuriy Bekker in the beautiful violin tête-à-tête, “Largo ma non tanto” from Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins and Strings in d minor (BWV 1043). Bach treated the two violins as sublime voices that speak to each other, repeat one another, and co-mingle in a wondrous weaving of notes that leaves you speechless. Such is the inimitable spirit and unity of his impeccable orchestration, not to mention the playing of these two violinists.
Last and not least came Cantata No. 191, Gloria in Excelsis Deo (BWV 191) conducted by Ricard Bordas and featuring soloists Margaret Cook and DeWayne Trainer. Needless to say, it was a rousing conclusion to an incredibly successful festival that brought us three days of outstanding music and performances.
Thank you Dr. Choi, Ricard Bordas, Yuriy Bekker, and so many others who made this event possible. Thanks also to the many hundreds of people who came, and without whom the experience would not have been the same.